Tuesday, 24 May 2022

From Tragic To Hopeful

If you're a reader of this blog, you've likely heard of the Patriotes du Cégep St-Laurent thanks to their men's team. That's the team that female goaltender Ève Gascon plays for normally, but this article isn't about the men's team who skates at Cégep St-Laurent. Instead, this article is about the women's team who skates for St-Laurent. More accurately, I should rephrase that as how they did skate for the Patriotes because the women's program has been suspended by the school for reasons that seem hard to believe and explanations that will leave you scratching your head. Buckle up for this one, folks, because we're in for a bumpy ride.

According to several outlets last week, the Patriotes du Cégep St-Laurent women's team has been "put on pause", as the CBC described it, after the school claims that it is experiencing "difficulties recruiting enough players" in a hockey-mad province like Quebec. Reading that opening paragraph alone had me asking all sorts of questions, so let me be clear: recruitment was never a problem.

Les Patriotes du Cégep St-Laurent are a storied program that has seen many NCAA, national, and international stars play on the same ice as the women do today, and the suggestion that a program like the Patriotes cannot find recruits or coaches who want the opportunity to participate at that level is laughable. Sure, there will be less successful years just as the extremely successful ones, but that happens with every club just as it did with the Patriotes women's team this year where they struggled.

That's why the suspension of the program was so surprising in its announcement.

"We are not making this decision lightly," said Danielle Malkassoff, director of student services and communications at the Montreal CEGEP. "We prefer to take one step back and then two steps forward." She also added, "Women's hockey is not dead. It is part of our DNA."

That's quite a strange statement when it comes to suspending a program, but let's look at the pieces of the puzzle that led to this bizarre announcement on May 13, 2022.

As we know, COVID-19 derailed an entire season of hockey for the entire country at the amateur level. Coming out of that cancelled year, vaccinations were required for coaches and players to return to the rinks, and Quebec was no different. That saw the first domino fall as head coach Dany Brunet chose not to be vaccinated, so the school had to let him go and find a replacement - a task not made easy thanks to a season already getting underway and the looming pandemic threat still present.

By midseason, Alexandria D'Onoforio had taken over as the head coach, and the former Concordia Stingers forward looked to push the program forward. At 27 years of age, D'Onoforio may have been in over head a bit as her only experience coaching came from U18 AAA teams, but her and the team pushed forward through the remainder of the season. When the dust settled, St-Laurent had won five games while playing under some rather uncertain circumstances.

Perhaps D'Onoforio wasn't the right candidate for the job based on results alone, but St-Laurent felt it needed to make a change as both D'Onoforio and assistant coach Léa McIntyre were fired from their positions. Again, one could understand this had D'Onoforio been working under more normal circumstances, but the decision made by Hugo Lamoureux, the CEGEP's athletic director, to make this change. His reason for the change, though, should have him on the unemployment line as well.

"We basically got a phone call saying, 'Sorry, we're going in a different direction. We've decided to go with a male head coach,'" D'Onoforio told CBC's Jay Turnbull. It's not like Lamoureux had a head coach lined up, but that he simply wanted a man to coach the team instead of a woman as CBC "confirmed with current players on the Patriotes' roster, as well as two other coaches, that Lamoureux said he was looking specifically for a male to coach the women's team."

Yikes. But he wasn't done there.

"In his mind, the perfect team would have a male head coach," assistant coach Alexandra Boulanger told Turnbull, prior to her promptly resigning. "He preferred that. He found it easier to communicate with a male."

Misogyny much there, Monsieur Lamoureux? As word of his comments spread throughout the team, strength and conditioning coach Emmanuelle Blais and assistant coach Alexandra Labelle also resigned from the team, leaving the Patriotes women's team with no coaching staff whatsoever. It's hard to recruit and build for a future when the people responsible for doing so have all been fired or have resigned because Hugo Lamoureux can't work with women. It would be a pile of hard work to replace all those people all the summer and recruit good talent, so St-Laurent picked the easiest option present: suspend the team.

Before we go on, the coaching staff on the Patriotes' bench was impressive as Boulanger played for both the Carabins de Montreal and the Concordia Stingers; Blais was a star with the NCAA's University of Minnesota-Duluth before suiting up with the CWHL's Montreal Stars/Canadiennes; and, Labelle was a standout with the University of Montreal before joining the PWHPA. That's a rather star-studded staff to have available, so it's hard for me to understand why Lamoureux would want to alienate them through his idiotic comments, but that's not for me to answer.

The CBC wanted an answer, though, but "Lamoureux did not return messages to CBC". That's probably because he has a gag order imposed by Malkassoff, but she also reiterated that "he will keep his job as athletic director" because he "simply chose his words poorly and didn't express himself properly".

Wow. That's a heckuva statement to make in the wake of what he told D'Onoforio and McIntyre. Nearly two weeks after he "chose his words poorly and didn't express himself properly", there still hasn't been an apology for that poor choice of words. It makes you wonder if we're heading down another North Dakota-Lethbridge-Robert Morris road with the Patriotes du Cégep St-Laurent.

"I feel abandoned," architecture student and Patriotes defender Mégan Miron told Turnbull. "I feel like the CEGEP didn't push. They're just saying they're sorry but they didn't do everything in their power to help us."

I would say Miss Miron's assessment is entirely accurate because there is simply no way we should be letting opportunities for girls to participate in high-level sports fall to the wayside. For some like Mégan, this may spell the end to their hockey dreams. For others, they'll have to be chased elsewhere as St-Laurent sorts itself out. At the end of the day, this feels like another tragic loss for women's sports.

Parents and hockey fans banded together to decry the decision made by Cégep St-Laurent. Players went to the media and wrote letters to the government who added their push in resolving this issue. The media shone a light on this story, and suddenly St-Laurent found themselves under intense scrutiny. You'd like to think that the pressure they felt forced St-Laurent to reconsider their actions.

Well, our story takes a happier turn right here as, according to Simon Olivier Lorange of La Presse, the Minister for Education and responsible for Sports and Recreation, Isabelle Charest, met with Hockey Quebec and RSEQ to to keep Division-I at their current seven-team division status if the team was ready to go in September. There had been plans to reduce the field, but that's now been swept off the table as Quebec looks to keep girls in the game thanks to the recent Committee on the Future of Quebec Hockey report.

Beyond that, former Patriotes head coach Daniel Continelli offered to return to the school to coach the team once again, thereby fulfilling Lamoureux's sexist need for a male head coach. Continelli coached the team in the early-2000s, setting them up for years of success as he put the program on the right track. Getting him to come back on his own without being sought out shows that he's not willing to watch a program die into which he sunk eleven years of his life.

"He really loves the Pats; he told us it was his goal to come back one day and coach us," Mégan Miron said to CBC's Sabrina Jonas. "He wants the girls to be treated the same as the guys at the Pats, that we're on the same level."

Malkassoff welcomed him back immediately as the two set out to fix the wrongs done this month, and that began with an apology from Miss Malkassoff to the players for the turmoil and problems they had caused with the announcement.

Players, understandably, weren't entirely trusting, but twelve players committed to returning to the Patriotes for the 2022-23 season with five needing time to decide on their futures. Those twelve players who did commit represent a large chunk of the player requirements - 14 skaters and 2 goaltenders - the team must fulfill in order to play next season.

As of this past weekend, the Patriotes had the required sixteen skaters, and have since upped the number to 18 women who want to play at Cégep St-Laurent next season! Continelli was even looking to up the number a little more, stating, "Next step is to try to find one to two more players to improve the team."

The Patriotes have a coach, they have the required number of players needed to compete, there appears to be active recruitment happening, so let's make it official: les Patriotes du Cégep St-Laurent will play hockey in 2022-23 after two weeks of hell! On-ice training will resume this week, and it seems that, for once, the right thing was done rather than allowing a school to take the easy way out of a situation. I can't say whether the Patriotes will be in jeopardy in the future, but one former NHL player made it clear that support for the Patriotes is needed.

"If you have a women's program, you have to put in the proper resources to attract good players," MNA Enrico Ciccone, the Liberal critic for sports, recreation and healthy living, told CBC. The Marquette-elected Member of the National Assembly of Quebec played 374 NHL games, but he's been an active member of Quebec politics since winning his seat in 2018.

"It's still ironic to submit a report [on the development of hockey in Quebec], and a week later, we lose a program," he stated to CBC Radio-Canada. "We must be in addition mode, we cannot subtract. There is significant funding to be done."

No one will deny that there is work to be done. St-Laurent really needs to repair the trust that the players had for the program and school. Daniel Continelli needs to rebuild a program in disarray. The players need to show up and work harder than ever before. And the fans, school, and parents need to support the team as often as they can by showing up and lending a hand in any way possible. This won't be easy, but the first step was keeping the program alive and that's been achieved.

Here's hoping the Patriotes come out in 2022-23 and surprise everyone. There are good people working very hard to keep this opportunity alive not only for themselves, but for future generations as well. There will always be challenges when it comes to running elite-level athletic programs at the collegiate and university levels, especially in today's day and age, but the last option of suspending or shutting down a program should only be selected when every other option has been exhausted.

I'm happy for and proud of the Patriotes and all the players who will suit up in 2022-23 as they can already hang a "W" on the board after defeating their biggest opponent yet - their own administrators!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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